“A Great German Joke Is to Say the Meanest and Most Tragic Thing Possible”

I really, really want to do this, just not yet; I want to show her everything. In a way, I wrote the book to answer that question. I’d do anything I could to change the subject: “Did you know that Austrians market a special kind of tampon meant JUST for use during sexual intercourse?” If all else failed, I’d leave the room. Just one so far, and he thinks it’s spot-on—but he’s very Americanized and has a great sense of humor about his mother culture. Germans don’t really believe in small talk and they don’t think that “certain subjects” are to be avoided in polite company, and they are pedantic as hell, but they don’t get offended easily. They find it SO annoying, and I actually think that particular arc—someone saying, “Oh, you’re German—I love Kafka!” and then the German getting an opportunity to be pedantic (Ektually, zet’s not right is the national phrase of Germany, and I say that with love)—is the single most German thing in the world. Last week saw the publication of Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman’s Schadenfreude, A Love Story, a funny and winning account of the writer’s not-entirely-requited crush on German culture. program without any particular intent to become a German professor, even though that’s the one thing a Ph.D. program, people would ask me why, and I’d just freeze up. The two most popular types of humor in German are slapstick and just bone-dry sarcasm. in German qualifies you for. Have you done that yet? You never became a German professor. Kafka is the muse of the book. For a culture that prizes order so much that the idiom for “everything OK?” is Alles in Ordnung? Given that hyperbole is my primary form of communication, I imagine many Germans will disagree with their culture’s portrayal. His work, though, definitely encapsulates the Austrian character (Prague, where he lived, was nominally Austrian for a lot of his life) with its endless bureaucratic entanglements. Since I can’t leave the room now, I’ll say that part of it was that German-language authors (mostly Austrians and Swiss!)—Kafka, Robert Walser—spoke to my own fears and insecurities in a primal way. A great German “joke” is to say the meanest and most tragic thing possible and then follow it with a slight grimace. Do you have German friends who’ve read the book? Maybe 27. You spend the book banging on doors trying to get in—to win over a Kafka-obsessed boy, to communicate with German-speakers, to find a spot in a university German department. But was it, in the end, a good idea to indulge and enable those insecurities? For years people at parties have asked me “Why German?” Especially when I was in a Ph.D. When I lived in Vienna for a year—a chapter, by the way, that got cut from the book—I had such a hard time getting registered for the university. Well, as soon as I got to the program and started it, like less than a month into it, I realized I did want to become a German professor. (That’s the nomme de guerre my daughter gave herself at 14 months, and it fits.) Maybe when she’s 7. Do Germans find it annoying that the German-language writer who’s most widely read in English wasn’t even German? I had to wait in line for 5 hours, and then when I finally got to the front, the worker was just like, Oh, I forgot to move you from one column to the other one, like it was the most normal thing in the world to require someone to come in for five hours to ask for a minor clerical task they didn’t know needed to be done. As far as the humor thing—well, the stereotypes are true and they aren’t. I got back to my desk at the research institute where I was doing my Fulbright and I said to my Austrian colleague: “I just realized that Kafka wrote nonfiction.”
You write about beginning a Ph.D. Maybe 17. Did you get it? Ask me again in 10 years. When I lived in Berlin I went to a Blur show in the dead of winter and had to check my coat. Oh, I will. That is the question I have had the hardest time answering. I still sort of wish I was a German professor—though only esoterically! I can’t wait to take her there—but I will wait. I want nothing to do with American academia, which our readers will be surprised to learn, I believe is a toxic morass of corporatization and poor social skills. Is there a humor mechanism that replaces comic exaggeration, for the Germans? Your book is in a way the story of a persistent crush on German culture. She already speaks a little German; she loves German kids’ songs, and she recognizes German when she hears it and answers in the few words and phrases she knows. Schuman’s bildungsroman channels the weltschmerz of a former wunderkind rejected by the professoriat and exiled to the creative lumpenproletariat. (I grew up in England where the trope about Germans is that they always barge to the front of queues. I often wonder, in Kafka-parable fashion, if my obsession with him made me prone to waiting outside doors meant not to let me in—or if I was drawn to him in the first place because I was already that way. However, the second-most-endearing thing about Germans is that a sign of true friendship with a German is that you stay up all night screaming at each other in disagreement but still remain best friends. (It was a great show, by the way; Damon Albarn did an A-level in German and addressed the audience in German!) Afterward, I spent no less than 45 minutes in an obscene grinding mosh pit of German bodies, when a proper queue would have taken 5 tops. After all those years, I found something I was actually really good at: reading the difficult texts, and also exposing students to them. What do they think of your portrait of their culture? What did you hope you’d get from the program? One of the most endearing things about Germans is that they neither understand nor enjoy exaggeration as humor. Does his work encapsulate the German character—even though, as you are reminded again and again in the book, he wasn’t German at all? the queuing habits are inexplicable. My mind was completely blown by all the difficult reading I was doing, and by the fact that I could actually work through that reading and come up with interesting insights. I’d start to cry sometimes! (Somehow it works.) Kafka, for example, was absolutely, rip-roaringly hilarious, obviously in a very dark way. At the end of the book you talk about looking forward to taking your newborn child to Germany, Austria, and Prague. Most people don’t know this about him, and early translations of his work (most of which are canonical) don’t play this up at all. Or are they as humorless as some stereotypes suggest? We spoke by email about Kafka, pretentiousness, and the Germans’ surprising inability to form an orderly line. It’s one of the best things about them. What was the romance of German culture for you? I think this mostly speaks to the profound respect the English have for the queuing process.)
Oh, the queue thing is true. Oh god no, she’s 2; I’d rather die than subject myself to an international flight with Fluffy Trouble. Why did you keep banging?